By David Loomis
INDIANA — What’s it take to get a grown-up back on a bicycle? For millions, it takes a pandemic.
Since its spread a year ago, Covid-19 has spawned a boom in bicycling. The pandemic has changed how people live, work and play. From Budapest to Blairsville, bicycling has benefited from social distancing, the great outdoors, staycations, fitness and other mitigating factors.
— For 2020, the National Bicycle Dealers Association reported retail bicycle sales jumped 40% over 2019. The association projected the trend will accelerate.
— Sales have spiked across age groups – from children’s bikes to beach cruisers to mountain bikes.
— Europe reports similar surges. Pop-up bike lanes in 106 European cities last year boosted bicycling by as much as 48 percent on average, according to a study published last month in the journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The new Euro infrastructure may produce billions in health benefits each year, if the cycling shift sticks, the study projected.
— Western Pennsylvania is riding the global wave. An Associated Press survey of Pittsburgh-area bike shops last month reported business is booming. At one Verona shop, the owner said he “never has seen anything like this.” His waiting list has 400 names. He reported an outing on a local trail where he usually sees about 40 riders; recently, he counted 504, including many families.
— In March 2020, ridership on U.S. trails tripled compared to pre-pandemic March 2019, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit cites Pennsylvania as the nation’s leader in rail-trails development, with more than 2,100 miles completed, more than any other state.
— One of those trails is the Ghost Town, Pennsylvania’s Trail of the Year for 2020. Most of its 46-mile crushed-stone right-of-way winds through Indiana County along abandoned and improved rail lines for coal trains. More mileage is planned to accommodate 80,000 people who use the trail each year, according to Indiana County Parks & Trails. Its director last fall said the trail-of-the-year recognition “has helped bring many new visitors to the trail and the region.”
Visitors spend money, though estimates vary. The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy estimated in 2019 that rail-trails contributed nearly $1 billion a year to the commonwealth’s economy. The figure is based on two decades of surveys that estimate spending along each trail at between $5 million and $7 million a year.
That means money to small-town and rural Pennsylvania. Let’s see: Indiana County manages three trails (not including the West Penn Trail connecting Blairsville and Saltsburg), multiplied by $5 million to $7 million in spending per year, equals $15 million to $21 million in rail-trail-related spending annually here, according to the conservancy’s accounting.
WHO IN INDIANA COUNTY could benefit most from this spending?
Yet for years, township supervisors have obstructed these paths to profit, despite their seat of government in Black Lick sitting at the terminus of two trails – the Ghost Town and the Hoodlebug. But like a satrapy astride the Silk Road, township supervisors for years have successfully used their strategic location to block a connection between the two regional trails, a third in neighboring Blairsville and others beyond.
For example, in 2018 the supervisors ordered removal of signs marking township roads as part of the two trails. Supervisors said the signs had been posted by PennDOT without their approval.
In 2019, when Burrell supervisors formalized their obstructionist rail-trail policy, a county planner asked why. Supervisors’ objections to the project since then have been all over the road:
— The county’s plan to build a pedestrian-and-bicycle bridge over U.S. Route 22 contained a typo.
— The proposed bridge is expensive. (The $3 million proposal is grant-funded.)
— It’s unsafe and poorly designed. (Highway engineers say otherwise.)
— It’s unwanted. (Local survey data said otherwise.)
— Supervisor Dan Shacreaw asserted that bike-bridge support was evidence of “the liberal/socialist agenda.”
Nevertheless, township supervisors successfully lobbied the county to withdraw a lawsuit and persuaded first-term county commissioners to hold yet more hearings in Black Lick in October (a delay for which township Supervisor Larry Henry implicitly thanked them last month). That public display highlighted opposition. (A 2019 survey, conducted shortly after township supervisors formally announced their roadblock, found strong support for the project.)
BUT LAST MONTH, the commissioners reversed and revived the infrastructure plan. First-term commissioners Mike Keith and Robin Gorman did not reply to April 21 emails seeking comment.
But Byron G. Stauffer Jr., the county’s planning and development director, listed in an April 21 phone interview recent developments that put the rail-trail and bridge project back on track:
— PennDOT completed a project review last fall and reiterated its support.
— Road work is scheduled this year for Mile Hill, the stretch of four-lane U.S. Route 119 between Black Lick and U.S. Route 22. The work will include improvements to the Hoodlebug Trail along the road’s shoulder.
— Grant funding for the shovel-ready bridge project remains intact with no pressing deadlines.
— Pine Ridge Park on the south side of U.S. 22 (near a hotel, a golf course and a convention center) is projected to generate user revenues, on top of rail-trail user spending estimates.
Mr. Stauffer added an anecdote about an October 2020 “trail familiarization tour” on which he led first-term county commissioners Keith and Gorman. On the Hoodlebug, the trio encountered a retired couple from Somerset County. It was not their first ride on it, the couple enthused, and they would be spending money overnighting along it.
The retired rail-trail tourists must have been persuasive for the commissioners. Now, Burrell supervisors are resigned to the dismantling of their roadblock.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop it,” said Supervisor Larry Henry.
That’s good news for long-overdue infrastructure investments that can pave the region’s path to improvement.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email email@example.com